William Hefner’s Modernist Homes Are Free from Historical Constraints - 1stDibs Introspective

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William Hefner’s Modernist Homes Are Free from Historical Constraints

Southern California–based architect William Hefner recently released a new monograph — his second — which takes readers on a tour of 11 of his recent houses (portrait by Marvin Steindler). Top: The dining room of a residence in Los Angeles’s Pacific Palisades, created for a couple of gourmet clients, shows off the homeowners’ wine collection behind tinted glass. The pair of tables enables the space to be conducive to parties, both large and small. Photo by Roger Davies

For years, William Hefner was best known as the designer of a 60,000-square-foot house in Bel Air that could have been in the Loire Valley. “The lady of the house always dreamed of having a château, and after six projects together, it was time,” says Hefner, who is determined to make all his clients happy. Still, he’s never wanted people to think of him as a devotee of faux-French architecture. 

“I’ve always been careful not to typecast myself,” says the Sacramento-born, UCLA-trained architect, who founded Studio William Hefner in 1989. (It now has offices in Los Angeles and outside Santa Barbara.) In fact, he works in a variety of styles, including many varieties of modernism. As he was putting together his new book, California Homes II (Images Publishing), which includes 11 recent houses, he realized that almost all the projects had open plans and minimal ornamentation. That, he writes in the monograph — which follows the first volume by seven years — reflects “the growing interest in more adventurous modern design among our clients and in the culture here generally.”

A history buff, Hefner tells 1stDibs that his houses “draw something essential from modernism, but they’re not imitations, or revivals, of anything.” And he’s right. These are not houses that could have been done by such mid-century California greats as Richard Neutra or Rudolph Schindler, who tended to work within self-imposed constraints — all white walls, say, or repeated aluminum-framed windows. 

Hefner prefers to be unconstrained, shaping residences to reflect their owners’ particular needs and desires, and taking pride in the diverse architectural languages he develops along the way. “We’re fortunate to have clients who are pretty open-minded about what modernism looks like,” he says.

In Trousdale Estates, a district of Beverly Hills known for its modernist architecture, Hefner designed a house for a contemporary-art collector client who wanted a residence that would pay homage to the Case Study Houses. Created in Southern California in the middle of the last century by such designers as Charles and Ray Eames, these homes were distinguished by their blending of indoors and out. Hefner’s designs takes this idea to beautiful extremes with glass walls that completely recede, like those of the principal bedroom above. In the book, the architect writes that the cantilevered modern fireplace “is a soulful gesture in a bedroom; tucking it into a corner allowed us to leave the balance of space open to maximize the view.” Photo by James Ray Spahn

One of Hefner’s clients loved Southern California’s Case Study Houses — the famous post–World War II experiments in indoor-outdoor living designed by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames and sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine. For more than a decade, this client had been looking to buy one of the originals, but they were too small for his collection of contemporary art. Eventually, he purchased a plot in Trousdale Estates, part of Beverly Hills known for its jazzy modernism. He hired Hefner to design a house with Case Study elements but, at 7,000 square feet, a lot more elbow room than its mid-century forebears. “There’s some Case Study House nostalgia,” Hefner says, adding, “It’s not a deliberate attempt to make a Case Study House, but it takes you back there.”

In the great room of their own home, in the Santa Barbara County hamlet of Montecito, Hefner and his late wife, interior designer Kazuko Hishono, hung three matching vintage milk glass pendants to unify the living, dining and cooking areas. For the seating area in front of the fireplace, which is made of limestone found on the property, they had a contemporary sofa and vintage armchairs upholstered in what Hefner describes in the book as “easy fabrics.” The beveled wood dining table of their own design pairs with restored vintage leather dining chairs and counter stools. On the deck, accessed through a set of 30-foot-wide sliding floor-to-ceiling glass doors, is a set of Harry Bertoia garden chairs. Photo by Laura Hull

The nostalgia is evident outside the house, in the carport, the barrel cacti set into gravel beds and the terrazzo bridge that leads to the front door. But that door opens onto a dramatic 18-by-36-foot gallery, which Hefner left unfurnished to accommodate art installations. Also nostalgic, but more luxurious than anything from the Case Study era, is the owner’s bedroom, set a few steps down from the rest of the house so that it’s level with the pool deck. When the two glass window walls of the bedroom slide into pockets and disappear, “the pool is practically part of the room,” says Hefner.

Combining the house’s 21st-century amenities with its mid-20th-century mien required a particularly skillful touch. This was provided by Kazuko Hoshino, Hefner’s Tokyo-born wife. The two met in the 1990s. Hoshino had moved to California to study English and interior design and was working in a showroom where Hefner sometimes shopped. A few years after they married, she joined her husband’s studio. Despite the couple’s different backgrounds, “[w]e have very similar aesthetics,” Hoshino told Introspective in 2017. “It’s become a little joke in the office. He’ll pick a finish or fabric, and someone will say, ‘That’s what [Kazuko] chose, too.’ ”

Hefner situated the principal suite of his and Hoshino’s home at the most private end of its bedroom wing. “The long, custom parchment cabinet,” he writes, “accommodates storage and art.” Photo by Laura Hull

Hoshino died last April, after a 15-month battle with cancer, when the new book was already in production. Of the 11 featured houses, she was the lead interior designer on seven. “She’s so much a part of it,” says Hefner. The release is bittersweet, he notes, since the two couldn’t share in it together.

Nor is she here to share one of the most dramatic houses in the book — the one that she and Hefner designed for themselves and their son, now 12, on a hillside plot in Montecito. As he often does with houses on large sites, Hefner broke up the building into separate volumes, creating a kind of rustic compound. “That heightened the feeling of being on vacation,” Hefner says. Indeed, he and Hoshino often slept in the guest house; their much larger, cathedral-ceilinged bedroom in the main building “seemed too grown-up, too serious for us,” he explains. 

The Montecito home’s suite of volumes partially encloses the pool and gardens, much the way mountain views ring the entire property. The stone structures contain the main living spaces, while the cedar plank wing to the right houses the bedrooms. A pool house, whose terrace can be seen in the foreground, mirrors the bedroom wing. Photo by Laura Hull

As for the house’s stripped-down but rustic appearance, Hefner says he thinks of it not as modern but as “a vernacular style that’s been tightly edited.” He had planned to clad the house in wood and stucco until excavators discovered a cache of Santa Barbara limestone on the property. Hefner ended up using the stone for many of the exterior walls, as well as for the house’s five wood-burning fireplaces. “We wanted it to be a kind of rugged, indestructible place where we didn’t have to tell our son no very often,” he says. “That helped us feel relaxed there.”

As in many of the modern houses they’ve designed for clients, the couple opted to mix new custom pieces of their own design with vintage furniture and lighting. “Using items from the fifties and sixties confuses people. They think the house has been here a long time,” says Hefner. “And we didn’t want it to look brand-spanking new.” Even their bespoke items don’t give away the house’s age. In the living room is a 48-inch-deep sofa that they gave classic lines, says Hefner, “so you couldn’t tell when it was made.”

Hefner sited this house just in from the edge of L.A.’s Chautauqua Canyon. “Several of the large eucalyptus trees that populate the canyon were pruned for sculptural effect to frame the view through the branches,” he writes, going on to explain, “The main house has an angled U shape, with the library and gym wing on the south end and the kitchen and master wing on the north, connected by a two-story great room and its patio.” Photo by Roger Davies.

Back in L.A., the couple designed a particularly efficient house for a bachelor client. “We studied what his day was like,” explains Hefner. “Starting in the morning, going from the bedroom to the bathroom and then to the workout room, then to the kitchen for breakfast and then to the home office.” Because the client wasn’t going to use the great room much, Hefner says, “we made it a kind of courtyard he passes through on a bridge. That way he can enjoy the room even when he’s not spending time there.”  

Since it would be used most often in the daytime, the architect writes, he positioned the Chautauqua Canyon house’s combined library, home office and den to maximize its sunlit views across the canyon. Hefner and Hoshino designed the long wall of bookshelves and cabinets to hold the owner’s collection of first editions and vinyl albums. Photo by James Ray Spahn

The house’s interiors are “masculine, warm, and natural,” Hefner writes. In the living room, an array of pendant light fixtures from Moooi illuminates a low-slung Turner sofa, designed by Hannes Wettstein for Molteni, and side tables by Barbara Barry and Isamu Noguchi. The home’s main stairway, meanwhile, “is like one of those Japanese step chests with built-in storage,” says Hefner. “It was constructed as carefully as a piece of furniture, to give the room a focus.” 

The Pacific Palisades home was built in a neighborhood that requires houses to have pitched roofs, as a way of encouraging traditional architectural vernaculars. Hefner’s solution: a pair of angled roofs over the second floor’s principal bedroom and bathroom, which had the benefit of letting in light through north-facing clerestories and creating a dynamic sawtooth geometry. Photo by Roger Davies

One of Hefner’s most recent projects was for a couple who had raised four children in a large Spanish Colonial and now wanted a smaller place, he says, “with a very open feeling and no rooms they wouldn’t use regularly.”

Their site, however, presented a challenge. It was in an L.A. neighborhood that requires houses to have pitched roofs (a way of promoting traditional architecture), and pitched roofs didn’t go with the modern house Hefner and the clients envisioned.

For months, “I would call the review board, try to get out of it, beg for mercy,” he recalls. No dice. 

Although it faces north, the principal bedroom’s clerestory floods the space below with natural light. “The effect is to let the space feel as if it’s open to the sky,” Hefner writes. The custom-designed headboard and nightstands, he continues, “create an enclosure for the bed, while the pair of vintage Sesann armchairs by Gianfranco Frattini “add softness.” Photo by Roger Davies

Eventually, he came up with the idea of making two sections of the roof — those over the second-floor principal bedroom and bathroom — slant up at the same angle. This enabled him to create north-facing clerestories that let in light and gave the house a handsome sawtooth geometry while avoiding any semblance of a hip or gabled roof. Now, he says, “when I look at the house, I feel like without those angled roofs, something would be missing.”

Inside, the house is similarly stunning, with an eight-seat theater and a powder room with plaster walls sculpted into deep honeycomb shapes. Hefner lit the cast plaster panels dramatically from below. The space, he says, “is small, and it’s under the stairs, and there had to be some wow.” 

Hoshino helped create that wow. “She would insert an unexpected twist now and then,” her husband says. “But really, her legacy was keeping designs simple. She’d always say, ‘Err on the side of simplicity.’ ”

The home’s covered entryway connects the stair hall (left) to an art studio (right) clad in black aluminum panels. The interior courtyard extends through the entry, Hefner explains in the book, “with the same Japanese garden elements throughout. Various boulders are part of the tranquil setting; a Japanese maple tree provides color.” Photo by Roger Davies

Because his wife was a great mentor, Hefner says, there are many people at the firm to carry on her work. “Sometimes, when we have a particularly hard problem, we’ll say, ‘What would Kazuko do?’ And then, we find the answer.”

William Hefner’s Quick Picks

“Niemeyer’s pieces are so collectible, and these two are really special.”

“These stools have a nice sense of whimsy that would lend a playful air to a room.”

“I’ve always loved George Nakashima’s pieces. He was truly a master. These chairs are especially interesting to me.”

“I’m impressed by the detailing and scale of this piece. We’re considering it for a Georgian-style project we’re designing in Los Angeles.”

“We have a couple of mountain houses we’re designing at the moment, and this Little Petra chair has a cozy, comfortable feel that could be right at home in either.”

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